Metaphors are figures of speech that are applied to an object, or action to which it is not literally applicable. They are important because they can provide us with a structure for how to think, they give us a problem and then provide a solution.
Award-winning journalist Will Storr once wrote that we use around one metaphor for every ten seconds of speech. He added that we are accustomed to speaking of ideas that are “conceived” or rain that is “driving”, or rage that is “burning.” It has become a norm, so much so, we usually don’t realise we are doing it
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the usage of metaphors has increased significantly. Media on every continent has been using metaphors that conjure up images of burden, acceleration, tsunami, invasion, fortification, and bottlenecks. But one of the most evocative metaphors and the metaphor of choice from Prime Minister Edi Rama has been that of war
War is the go-to metaphor in a crisis- “COVID-19 has invaded the world and is threatening humanity”. While it might sound good, it seems an odd comparison when you think about it because a virus isn’t capable of independent, or malevolent thought.
But the references to war go far beyond media descriptions. Take Albania for example. Rama has created a ‘task force’, an ‘army of volunteers’ are working to provide aid, regions of the country are being ‘blockaded’, and of course, quite literally, we had the army on the streets.
In times of crisis, the comparison with wartime can be helpful as it provides context to the gravity of the situation. It can also make people feel that we are all in this together. But I believe war metaphors were chosen for a darker, more manipulative reason
When you position the virus as ‘the enemy’ and the government as doing all they can to ‘fight it’, you create a situation where anyone critical of the government would be seen to be siding with the ‘enemy’. You are immediately considered against the force that is fighting to save you.
Additionally, by talking about ‘fighting an enemy’ you justify doing so at all costs. In times of war, people and resources are all channelled without question into the war effort. Normal priorities, concerns, questions, and issues are rug swept and the government and state authorities seize more control.
In a time of war, the moral appeal is for citizens to ‘obey orders’ and ‘do your duty’. People do not question for fear of being labelled a “traitor” and others live in the fear of being cast out, at the mercy of the ‘enemy’ should they not fall in line with the ‘fight’.
But we are not at war. The war metaphor primes us to accept things that we would not normally do such as suspension of human rights, authoritarian power grabs, and even scandals because nothing is as bad as the ‘enemy’ and the priority is to allow the government to ‘fight’ them to protect us.
After all, war is usually a nation’s last resort. It implies death, destruction, suffering and extreme violence. The use of words such as ‘battle’, ‘fight’, ‘threats’, and ‘enemy’ all serve to accrete power and suspend liberty.
So what is the benefit of this for Rama? The answer is simple: he has achieved what he always dreamed of, absolute power over Albanian society.
Last week the Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that the COVID-19 crisis allowed Rama to assume a greater political and institutional role.
He has been communicator-in-chief, personally announcing every measure that has been taken. He has used his social media platforms to send messages that threaten, reassure, inform, scare, confuse, and everything in between. He has assumed the role of head of state, father of the nation, judge, jury and executioner through the hundreds of hours of live streaming he has done since the pandemic began.
More than anything, he is the commander- the head of the ‘army’ that is ‘fighting’ the ‘invisible enemy’ that ‘threatens’ our nation.
But he is an inconsistent General. He makes announcements and then changes his mind, he gives orders before they are official, he goes back on his word, gets angry and then apologises, and is generally erratic in his manner. Notably, he has often waited until the 11th hour to give important, time-sensitive information, no doubt enjoying the thought of an entire nation hanging on to hear him speak.
He reminds me of Adam Sutler, the High Chancellor in V for Vendetta who broadcasts his rambling tirades of authoritarianism via every television in the land. Sutler remained in his inner sanctum with little contact with the outside world, rather dictating his empire via digital means. Sort of like Rama inside his multi-million euro concrete bunker, addressing his people via Facebook.
The COVID-19 pandemic gave Rama the opportunity to drop any facade of democracy, on a golden platter. Through a driving desire for power and self-interests, he has attacked the media, created his own special, ex-judicial police and intelligence unit, been instrumental in the spectacular failure of the justice reform, tried to oust the President, and done away with free and fair elections.
The pandemic was the ultimate gift, allowing him to position himself as the saviour of the nation while seizing and consolidating power. We have been assured that this is only temporary and once the state of disaster is over, things will go back to normal.
But I wonder, will someone who has been given a taste of such ultimate power, really give it up without a fight?